Le Doulos Review

The ever burgeoning base of admiration for Jean-Pierre Melville will immediately take to the opening scene of Le doulos. Clad in trench coat and fedora, Serge Reggiani, previously of Jacques Becker's Casque d'or and later to turn up as the empathetic barber in Melville's Army of Shadows, is seen walking against his own shadow, with a dedicated, if mysterious, purpose. He is solitary, by every indication a loner either by choice or circumstance. He passes under rails, bridges, and various poorly lit locations, through it all cool and determined. There's a sense that it's this exact scene when Melville became Melville. Le doulos was his seventh film, but each one gradually became more and more stark and distant. It would seem that the best point of transition between the earlier pictures Melville directed, including Bob le Flambeur which certainly contains some of the narrative tropes of late Melville but is less committed stylistically, and his later, pared down works like Le samouraï and Le cercle rouge can be found within Le doulos.

As the film continues, Reggiani's character Maurice proves to indeed be on a mission of sorts. He's recently been released from a stint in prison and now plans a visit to Gilbert Varnove (René Lefevre), a fence who has a connection to Maurice, though the extent is unclear at this point. Maurice asks Gilbert to borrow a gun, seemingly with benign intentions. He digs a piece from the drawer and suddenly points it at us, the camera, but also at Gilbert. Seconds later Gilbert is dead and Maurice is building a crime scene. The gun and a collection of stolen jewels will be buried near a light pole amid a plane of darkness. If Reggiani's opening walk was Melville's welcome mat, the killing of Gilbert is the night's first drink.

Le doulos moves in misdirection for much of its running time - almost pre-Mametian if you will. The plot can be sussed out eventually and the loose ends are entirely tied by the final hail of gunfire, but getting there may be a tad twisty, convoluted for some. It isn't so much intricate as nearly irrelevant. Never in Melville's film do you get the sense that it's necessary to understand the overarching plot to even remotely enjoy the proceedings. As he continued in his career, Melville became increasingly disinterested in the ideas of story and how important it was to the art of the motion picture. And though this is perhaps most obvious in his penultimate film Le cercle rouge, you can actually see that ambivalence to narrative in his debut feature Le silence de la mer, which is an auspicious start despite its rigorous commitment to being basically a series of monologues. In between he showed some of the traditional restraint expected in film, but Le doulos seems like the point where he really began to exercise the freedom of the non-narrative in favour of character studies.

Even so, it's quite the ride, and far from being merely an exploration of austere criminality. Reggiani is initially painted as our protagonist, but he's soon revealed as being not the star and arguably not the protagonist either. Melville instead placed Jean-Paul Belmondo, in the middle point of his three starring roles for the director, as the more compelling figure, not to mention the one with slightly more time on screen. His Silien receives the crown of ambiguous motivation, first appearing as a police informant in gangster's clothes but ultimately laid out as something more complicated. Despite his international stardom boosted by Breathless just a couple of years earlier, Belmondo is not entirely convincing as a hardened small-time gangster. It's interesting that Melville would employ Alain Delon, an even fresher face, not too long afterwards because despite Delon appearing more youthful and handsome than Belmondo, he could believably pull off the existentialism of these criminal characters when Belmondo instead comes across as too movie star to wear his trench coat convincingly and too broken nosed to be alienated.

Fans of Belmondo probably won't agree he's out of place and fans of Melville will be happy to look past it, so the point is somewhat moot. More arguable is the frequent claim of Melville's misogyny in his male-centric films. Frankly, this has never been discussed persuasively for my satisfaction and instead gets cited too often as a supposed fact viewers should accept when dealing with the director. The misogyny perceived in Melville's films is better described as antagonism towards women in general in his particular milieu of interest. Le silence de la mer and Les enfants terribles display no discernible misogyny. Simone Signoret's character in Army of Shadows is one of Melville's strongest and most sympathetic characters. By contrast, Le doulos is usually considered a prime example of the offending material and contains an horrific scene of violence directed against the powerless Therese (Monique Hennessy). When the sequence plays out, the viewer probably believes that Therese is receiving a terrible and undeserved treatment at the hands of Belmondo's Silien.

He violently slaps her, binds her arms and traps the helpless female against a radiator. It's a terrifically demented couple of minutes, stretched out to the point of discomfort and absolutely shocking for a film of this era. Is it misogynist though? It seems unlikely that Melville would have actively sought out showing an explosively brutal scene against the fairest gender. Perhaps it merely exists in the realm of realism, where men of Silien's ilk would hold no sympathy for those like Therese. The Siliens of the world might even find a special glee in that sort of exercise of power. Melville isn't displaying misogynistic tendencies by showing such an act so much as he's providing insight into the ruthless behaviour of these figures. The torture of the female seems consistent with the idea that her actions were beyond the breach of acceptance for the underworld. If Silien is misogynistic, that need not mean that Melville is too.

Silien at least is given some motivation for his actions since the woman he loves, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), has taken up with corrupt night club impresario Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). There could be a sense that Silien is punishing Therese for Fabienne's abandoning him, wherein he's transferring his anger at Fabienne onto Therese. Melville may deserve an inheritance of the blame for showing the violence in question, but it also helps to build that sense of confusion when nothing is much as it initially seems in the film. If anything, the possible misogyny may actually lie more in the later (apparent) realisation of what Therese did to deserve her fate, complete with the reveal that the viewer's sympathy was misplaced, than in Silien's nightmarish behaviour. At least give Melville credit for instilling the gravity of the situation in his treatment. The director can hardly be faulted for mere insinuations or being nonchalant in his depiction of the violence against Therese.

Indeed, Melville even exercises less restraint overall in Le doulos than in most of the films that would follow. He lets Belmondo be almost playful when not actively tormenting helpless females. Even that difficult scene begins with actor and director faking us through an increased tempo on the soundtrack only to have Belmondo extinguish a radio. He's then allowed to work in unnerving silence, and for a brief moment, Belmondo does actually prove my earlier assertion wrong by being entirely convincing as an off-centre psychopath. Melville seems to oscillate between his once and future degrees of alienation otherwise. The fatalism is certainly there. The stoicism rears its head at times. The sense of distrust pervasive among both the audience and the characters is developed brilliantly. Yet, there's also a lack of deep-set purpose in these men when compared to Melville's characters later on. Individual ethics are less isolated and not such an obvious focus as in the other films. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the broken circle of the plot, but there's still never that sense that these men would operate by a self-imposed code that they'd rather encounter death than betray.

Much of the appeal in Melville's most idiosyncratic films is in that very idea of masculine glory even when it's isolated. Triumphing over fate just to remind everyone who's in charge. Making one's own death not out of accident or circumstance, but as a result of total commitment to the life chosen, or tacitly accepted. That difference doesn't earn Le doulos a negative mark. It's a fine stepping stone of a film that nicely connects the Melville of Bob le Flambeur with Le samouraï. Nonetheless, Le doulos remains a fence straddler arguably best embraced by the less fervent Melville fans. The total commitment exhibited by the director that in some ways resembled the utter professionalism found in his signature films isn't entirely on view here. He's clearly working up to it, and maybe the push of Lino Ventura and Delon got him the rest of the way there. You still get the repetition of mirrors and white gloves and the glorious combination of trench coats, fedoras, and guns, but Le doulos lacks both the bite and the consuming tragedy of Melville's very best. The end of the film is a corker. It just doesn't resonate as deeply as it would have had the characters been entrenched to the degree of Melville's most salient protagonists.

The Disc

Already available from the BFI in R2, Le doulos has now been released alongside another Melville film, Le deuxième souffle, by the Criterion Collection in R1. Most of the supplements from the BFI version are carried over, with a few new ones added and the Ginette Vincendeau introduction not included. The image quality has been sharpened by Criterion.

Housed on a dual-layered disc, the progressive transfer is of fairly strong quality. Aspect ratio is presented at 1.66:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions. The black and white image does indeed favour an obvious contrast, with the blacks notably deep per Melville's intentions. Criterion has reproduced this faithfully and refrained from any glaring manipulations. A healthy amount of grain has also been kept in, fuzzying up the image at times but without overdoing it. The grain looks natural and mostly, if not absolutely, filmlike. Detail is the main improvement from the BFI release. It's slightly sharper. One scene with Serge Reggiani at around the 40-minute mark does stand out as looking inferior, but the anomaly is brief and likely inherent in the source print. There is no damage to speak of otherwise, and the image is free from any significant dirt or debris. Overall, the quality is good, though still not up to the very best black and white presentations Criterion has given us.

A single-channel Dolby Digital mono track (in French) is the only audio option. It may sound a tad distant, but nonetheless comes through clearly despite a minor hiss and with consistent volume. There's an occasional jazz score, which adds some touch of atmosphere and sets the mood well. Both it and the dialogue are presented satisfactorily. English subtitles are provided, optional whereas the BFI's are burned in, and are white in colour.

Though Criterion has outfitted the release with a nice overall selection of special features, it's certainly arguable as to whether there's enough on this single disc to justify the higher price point used. There's a commentary, by Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau, but it only covers three scenes and roughly half an hour of screen time. Strangely, the film is non-anamorphic when played with the commentary, also utilising the BFI's subtitles and transfer. The lack of proper PAL to NTSC conversion has caused some slight combing during these scenes. Vincendeau's analysis is a repeat from the R2 disc, and finds her discussing "The Film's Opening" (15:01), "Thérèse's Punishment" (6:10), and "The Shootout" (9:53). She's an informed voice on Melville, perhaps the only one qualified since she's become ubiquitous on his DVD releases, and her comments are certainly worth the listen.

Also ported over from the R2 is an interview (13:19) with Volker Schlöndorff, the German director who acted as the film's assistant director. His remarks are of interest, but not even close to being as memorable as the recollections shared by Bertrand Tavernier. Criterion's newly filmed interview (15:30) with Tavernier, publicity agent on Le doulos, is wholly fantastic and full of warm insight into Melville's personality and behaviour. You don't want Tavernier to stop talking, but Criterion has at least continued the interview on its release of Le deuxième souffle. The contradictions and peccadilloes of Jean-Pierre Melville are always fascinating to hear discussed, especially by primary sources like these two.

A small collection of archival interviews excerpted from French television programmes continues the disc's supplements. A short discussion (4:27) with Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo done at the time of the film's release finds the two being somewhat cagey. In another interview (7:10) from 1963, Serge Reggiani discusses his difficulty getting work after Casque d'or in 1952 until Le doulos a decade later. Reggiani also returns, this time with Melville joining him, for an excerpt (3:16) from what seems to be a This Is Your Life type of show done in 1970.

The film's original theatrical trailer (2:18) finishes up the disc extras. Inside the case is a thin, folded insert with an essay by Glenn Kenny.

Final Thoughts

Le doulos is an essential for fans of Melville or French crime movies, and this is a better edition than what the BFI put out a few years ago, but I can't help feeling some disappointment at the lightness of Criterion's release. Even if the label may be a victim of its own success at times, you tend to expect a stronger package when a release is priced in the upper tier. The commentary included is somewhat of a cheat in being just around half an hour and the rest of the bonus material adds up to only about forty-five minutes. Where the norm is typically a nice, thick booklet, here we have a flimsy insert. By comparison, the booklets for Bob le Flambeur and Le cercle rouge were both 24 pages, Le samouraï's was 32, and Army of Shadows had a full 48 pages for its booklet. Minor complaints perhaps, and I don't mean to sound discouraging of Criterion's efforts to release these films in fine editions, but worth considering all the same.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:26:37

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